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The Choice We Confront

If I were asked to recite the Torah while standing on one leg, I would repeat the summary formulation to be found at the end of this week’s portion, Nitzavim/VaYelekh. While standing on one leg, I would say — conflating Deuteronomy 30:15 and 30:19 — that the essence of the Torah is this, in the standard translation:

See, I set before you this day, life and good, and death and evil…. Choose life.The rest is commentary.

Here, at the end of the last exhortation of Moses, his last summarizing remarks on the Law, we have this formulation as the culmination of his message to the Children of Israel. At the beginning of the Torah is the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life, and a wrong choice and a consequent expulsion into death. All five elements that are part of a single commandment in Nitzavim are present at the beginning of the Torah in mythical form. And the first Psalm, generally regarded as an introduction to the entire book of Psalms and its preoccupations, presents, as the great human life-choice, two ways of living — a way of righteousness and life and a way of evil and death.

So, at the beginning of the Torah as myth and at the end of the Torah as commandment, and in the first Psalm as poetry, in these key places, we have the same constellation of elements and the same message. This, then, is the great message of the Hebrew Bible in an authoritative sum- mary.

My translation of the message into English would take into account the succession of definite articles in the Hebrew:

et ha-hayyim, v’et ha-tov, v’et ha-mavet, v’et ha-ra

A literal translation would be: “the life, and the good, and the death, and the evil.” The definite articles are normally omitted from translations. Nor does traditional commentary or Midrash pick them up. But the difference between “good” and the philosophical conception of “the good” is large. So is the difference between “life and death” as the subject matter of a choice, and “the life and the death.” One is a choice of whether or not to commit suicide, and the other is a choice of mode of existence. The latter is meant, as is made quite explicit in the first Psalm.

As to the injunction to “choose life,” in the Hebrew there is a pointing that implies another definite article.

So the great message is:

I set before you today: the life and the good, and the death and the evil…. Choose the life.

The message is in two parts: a characterization of the context of the central human choice, and the commandment regarding the correct choice in this context. I will comment on the message, phrase by phrase, in the traditional manner.

I set before you”: The words “set before you” imply that the great religious concern being characterized is not purely subjective, but is in some sense framed by what is out there in the world. It confronts us. In contrast, there are religious and, for that matter, secular viewpoints that emphasize what is set within us.

“I set before you”: “You” is in the singular. It is up to you personally to confront what is set before you. The message, however, is not in the form of a still-small voice within each isolated individual, but of an address to an assembly of individuals. In this setting, the web of social obligations, including other commandments, surrounds the individual, but is the background, not the focus.

“I set before you today”: The present moment. The concerns characterized must be grappled with in the unique situations in which they occur in each “today” of our lives.

“The life and the good and the death and the evil”: This conception of “the life” is what is set before us today. What is meant by this phrase? Tradition tells us that when we die and appear before the Throne of Judgement, we will not be asked: “Why weren’t you Albert Einstein?” but, in my case: “Why weren’t you David Curzon?” Or, in other words: “Why didn’t you live the life?” The life ordained for yourself, the fullest life appropriate to yourself that you could have lived in the circumstances granted to you. At each living moment there is a calling that, if taken up, would become part of “the life.”

“The life, and the good”: Not “the good” from some social perspective, but from the perspective of choosing “the life.” “The good” is whatever contributes to “the life” ordained for us. The recurrent task is to recognize “the good” for our ordained life in the potentialities set before us each moment.

“The life, and the good and the death”: Not physical extinction, which is death without the definite article, but “the death,” the living death of choosing wrongly among the potentialities, of not choosing the form of vivacity appropriate to each moment, of withholding appropriate engagement in our stream of existence, of refusing the moment’s calling.

“The life, and the good, and the death, and the evil”: Not evil from some social perspective, but “the evil” in relation to choosing “the life.”

“Choose the life”: The succession of choices we make each today of our lives add up to our choice of mode of existence, the trace of what we have done with the vivacity placed in our custody.

David Curzon is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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